Friday, August 31, 2007

Academic Perspiration

Sten J├Ânssen's contribution to the European Business Review's special issue on academic journals and academic publishing is a good elaboration on the familiar maxim that genius is a matter perspiration not inspiration. Indeed, most of his advice "on academic writing" is of either a moral or practical kind. While he talks of "tricks of the trade" he is really saying there isn't a trick to it. It's just a matter of working at it, moving forward a bit at a time. Writing academically is not so much about ideas as about sweat and a healthy attitude to the sometimes tedious writing and publication process.

Putting it that way may seem to take the joy out of it. It is therefore important to keep in mind that good work habits and linguistic mastery, once established, fall into the background, allowing you to use your skills and endurance to produce the most interesting effects possible. Once you are in shape, you may well be able to make interesting interventions in the academic discourse without breaking a sweat. That's when your ideas will once again be decisive.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

More on (Not) Citing Wikipedia

The New York Times ran a good story about citing Wikipedia back in February. You can read it online here.

The most interesting thing about the article is the way the issue is framed by defenders of Wikipedia. With some justification, they take the rule against citing Wikipedia as a criticism of it. But they are not (necessarily) right to see it as a reactionary "censoring" of a perceived "threat to traditional knowledge". As I said in my previous post, there is no contradiction in banning citations of Wikipedia while encouraging its use.

As the article points out, Wikipedia can even be usefully included in classroom activities. (But, in my opinion, this requires that the teacher has a good deal of experience with Wikipedia, or that an experienced Wikipedian is drawn into the project in a supporting role.)

There is simply no contradiction between "I use it all the time!" and "Don't ever cite Wikipedia!"

While this policy proposal offers some interesting insights, it is too soft on the citation issue. Wikipedia should never be cited. That is, it should under no circumstances be cited as a source of information. It can of course be quoted in studies of Wikipedia.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

An Aphorism

Maybe one day I'll put together a collection of my pithiest sayings. Here's one that might qualify:

An academic paper paper will always be much less knowledgeable than its author—and much more sure of itself.

This may of course be because knowledge and certainty are inversely proportional. The more you know the less certain you are. An academic paper, however, reports only part of what you know and therefore allows you to invert the proportions once again.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Don't Cite Wikipedia!

I've now seen enough cases of students and journalists, and even some academics, citing Wikipedia as a source to cause alarm. I think it is time academics educate themselves about what Wikipedia is and isn't, and then teach their students how to use it, so that the situation doesn't get out of hand.

The first thing to stress is that Wikipedia can be a very, very useful tool in your research. I am a firm believer in Wikipedia's potential to transform both how we come to know something and what we think it means to "know" something. I am also certain that, used properly, Wikipedia can make us aware of facts we would otherwise not have been exposed to.

But none of that justifies citing Wikipedia when reporting names, dates , places, statistics, facts, events and ideas in your own writing. First of all, Wikipedia is not a reliable source: there is no guarantee that the information in its articles is correct (i.e., no one to blame if it is not). Second, Wikipedia is a not a stable source. That means that your readers are likely to find a wholly different article than you did and this makes it impossible for them to check your sources.

Wikipedia should be treated as hearsay. Articles can vary greatly in quality and are subject to vandalism, sometimes very "sneaky" vandalism. You might bump into something interesting, but you have to check for yourself whether or not it is true. To this end, Wikipedia's "reliable sources" policy is a good thing. You will often find that facts in the article are sourced to reliable, mainstream, published accounts. (This is because it is a way of resolving controversies between editors of the articles.) These sources are what you must evaluate: you then cite them, not Wikipedia.

My motto is, "Wikipedia is a dependable source of reliable sources. It is not itself a reliable source of information." Sometimes Wikipedia won't provide its sources. It's not 100%. But it's getting better and better.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Getting Back to Work

I'm back a from vacation and I hope everyone has had a good summer. As always, I bought a copy of the Economist for the train and, as always, I now find myself recommending that you read it simply for its grammatical tightness.

Also, I noticed that some Danish newspapers have taken to citing Wikipedia as a source of background information. This is a very bad idea, even in journalism, and academic writing should certainly never cite Wikipedia. That is, you should never find yourself claiming to know that something is the case on the grounds that it says so in Wikipedia. It can be a perfectly useful tool in research, however, and I think my next post will be about this difference. In fact, it may be time to hold a seminar on what Wikipedia can and cannot do for your research.

Until then...